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1990: Supreme Court accepts battered wife syndrome defence

The Story

The Supreme Court of Canada delivers a landmark decision when it accepts battered wife syndrome as a defence against murder. The judgment, a legal precedent in Canada, affirms the acquittal of Angelique Lynn Lavallee for killing her husband. Speaking for the Court, Justice Bertha Wilson states that after years of abuse at the hands of her spouse, Lavallee had acted in self-defence. The ruling illuminates the issue of battered women in Canada and will have an impact on the legal landscape for years to come.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: May 3, 1990
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Karen Webb
Duration: 3:13

Did You know?

• Winnipeg resident Angelique Lavallee and common law husband Kevin Rust lived in an abusive relationship, described in court as "volatile and punctuated by frequent arguments and violence." On several occasions, Lavallee ended up in hospital with injuries from her husband's abuse.

• On Aug. 30, 1986, during a party at their house, Rust yelled at and beat Lavallee in an upstairs bedroom. Lavallee told police that Rust then said, "wait till everybody leaves, you'll get it then." She said he then handed her a rifle and said something like, "either you kill me or I'll get you." When Rust turned to leave, Lavallee shot him in the back of the head. She was charged with second degree murder.

• Lavallee's defence team argued that she had acted in self-defence. Psychiatrist and expert witness Dr. Fred Shane testified that Lavallee's behaviour was evidence of battered wife syndrome. Battered wife syndrome is a recognized psychological condition that describes how women, abused for long periods of time, can become severely depressed, suffer from low self-esteem and become incapable of taking independent action. They will often stay in abusive relationships instead of leaving, even though they may fear for their lives.

• Lavallee was acquitted by a jury of 11 men and one woman. But the verdict was later overturned on appeal by the Manitoba Court of Appeal. That court decided that the expert testimony should not have been allowed, and doubted Lavallee's actions constituted self-defence.

• In 1990, the Supreme Court of Canada restored the acquittal in a unanimous ruling. Justice Bertha Wilson wrote that when it comes to issues that the average person doesn't fully understand, such as this syndrome, an expert's knowledge and insight are necessary. She further stated that such testimony helps dispel longstanding myths and stereotypes of battered women held by many laypeople. Expert testimony helps address the standard question, "Why don't they simply leave?" by taking the victim's own perceptions into account.

• A number of other murder cases have relied successfully on the landmark decision of R. v. Lavallee. The acceptance of battered wife syndrome was heralded by many women as a triumph. But others have since argued that it also contributed to a stereotype of its own: that abused women act in a predictable, defined manner, and are incapable of thinking and acting rationally.

• In 1975, Bertha Wilson became the first woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal. In 1982, she became the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, a position she retained until her retirement in 1991. Justice Wilson established a reputation as the champion of the underdog and supporter of the Charter of Rights. She is also known for decisions that changed the landscape of Canadian law and society, such as upholding women's rights to abortion.

Also on May 3:
1811: The Hudson's Bay Company agrees to the purchase by Lord Selkirk of 300,000 square kilometres between Lake Winnipeg and the headwaters of the Red River. The colony is named Assiniboia, or the Red River Colony.
1887: An explosion in a coalmine at Nanaimo, BC kills 150 people, after explosives are laid improperly. It is the largest man-made explosion in the world until the Halifax Explosion.
1915: Dr. John McCrae of Guelph, Ont. writes perhaps the most famous English poem of the First World War. He composes In Flanders Fields in 20 minutes while overlooking the grave of a fellow officer in Ypres, Belgium.


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